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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Man Who Lost His Shadow

Fathy Ghanem

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To purchase The Man Who Lost His Shadow

Title: The Man Who Lost His Shadow
Author: Fathy Ghanem
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 1966)
Length: 352 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Man Who Lost His Shadow - US
The Man Who Lost His Shadow - UK
The Man Who Lost His Shadow - Canada
  • Arabic title: الرجل الذى فقد ظله
  • Translated by Desmond Stewart

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well-done character-portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Man Who Lost His Shadow is a cleverly constructed four-part novel, each part narrated by a different character. The central, connecting figure is that of Yusif Abdul Hamid, but each of the other narrators recounts their own story, in which Yusif's role is often only in the background. Even so, he affects all the others' lives -- and not in a good way: the first narrator, Mabruka, doesn't take long -- two paragraphs -- before she gets to the point:

     My only emotion now is hatred -- hatred for one man whose death I dream of -- a slow lingering death with plenty of pain. I would like to knife open his belly, pull out his liver and grind it with my teeth. I would gouge out his eyes, or drink his blood.
     The man is Yusuf Abdul Hamid, my husband's son by his first wife.
       Yusuf wrongs all the other characters -- though he largely does so by avoidance. He fails to help Mabruka after she is widowed, even though her child is Yusuf's half-brother; similarly, he leaves the country on a journalistic assignment on the day he was supposed to marry one of the other narrators, Samia.
       Mabruka's story opens the novel, and tells of her being brought to Cairo by her mother and handed over to a family to be a servant. It's a nicely done account of a young girl ripped from her family yet finding a new role and at least some sort of opportunity in the big city. When her mistress dies she is packed off to serve Abdul Hamid, an old widowed teacher with only one son, Yusif. Eventually she and the old man start fooling around; when she gets pregnant she finally gets him to marry her. Neither the affair nor the marriage go over well with Yusif, who would be a much more age-appropriate partner for her. He is also not much of a support for her when she is soon left as a young widowed mother.
       After graduating from university Yusif had difficulty finding a job, but eventually landed one at a newspaper, Al-Ayyam. It is here he makes his name and rises to the top -- leaving others, especially the three other narrators, in his wake.
       The second account comes from Samia Sami -- so the stage-name of the would-be actress hoping to break into film. She fell in love with Yusif and even shacked up with him, and along the way lost her opportunity for a big film career. Yusif, meanwhile, refuses to truly commit, and eventually she dumps him.
       That Yusif is a problematic character who has difficulties taking anyone else's feelings or well-being into account is clear in almost everything he does -- though admittedly he also doesn't seem to know what's best for him (even as he always conveniently lands very much on his feet (and, likely as not, on someone else's shoulders)). Typically, when he tells Samia how he got a promotion and big raise: "He told me the good news as if it was a catastrophe."
       Muhammad Nagi, a colleague who would find his place at the paper usurped by Yusif, offers Samia his take on Yusif:
Yusuf is not a king emperor. He doesn't have a throne. If Yusif had one, I'm certain he'd abdicate for love ... as if it was the simplest thing. Yusif's tragedy is that he had no throne. Because of that he will abdicate from his love and search for his throne.
       By the third section of the novel, narrated by Muhammad Nagi, Yusif has his throne and runs the paper. Nagi is jealous -- though he has the spoiled Samia as a consolation prize, and finds himself living quite comfortably in Paris, away from Suez and other crises-rattled Egypt. He even admits:
Yusif can work wonders. Lucky I left him the editorship during the crisis. He knows how to get around them. If he hadn't been there, they'd have gaoled me.
       Yet he vows: "I won't rest till I see Yusuf with a noose around his neck" -- even though he isn't up to it. The final confrontation with Yusif shows once again who wields all the power.
       After the others have had their turn it is Yusif's turn to give his side of his story. It isn't easy for him. As the three earlier accounts suggest, Yusif is a conflicted young man. Indeed, he admits:
     All I am sure of is my own dissatisfaction, my ignorance of the essential 'I' within me.
       With its overlapping storylines and very different perspectives, The Man Who Lost His Shadow is an impressive character-portrait. Yusif is cleverly kept an elusive figure in the first three parts, largely revealed by how he affects the lives of others, not how he leads his own. But, of course, it becomes apparent when his own turn to have his say comes that he 'lost his shadow': he is not entirely substantial, and that "essential 'I' within" remains ungraspable.
       Ghanem does a very fine job in presenting the four different voices and four different backgrounds. From humble, uneducated Mabruka to the pompous but deflated Muhammad Nagi ("I am Nagi, Muhammad Nagi, the most illustrious journalist and writer in the Arab World. Or so I was", he begins his account, and is never able to overcome his sense of earned entitlement), Ghanem creates four very distinct and convincing voices. In each case, their tales also stand well on their own, but Ghanem also cleverly interweaves them: Mabruka doesn't entirely disappear from the scene, for example, but figures in the background (under a different name, at times, too), and these lives and fates continue to overlap, the characters unable to entirely escape what they mean to each other. For a character who is presented as being so hated -- and who does not acquit himself very honorably in the first three sections -- Yusif would seem a difficult person to sympathize with, but Ghanem makes Yusif's account as intriguing as any of the others.
       There are quite a few impressive stylistic touches here, too. Much of the novel is in rapid-fire, unembellished dialogue, which is well-presented, but Ghanem shows great range, especially in Nagi's rant (which is pretty much what the whole section he narrates amounts to, complete with tour de force conclusion).
       An impressive novel, culminating during the Suez Crisis, The Man Who Lost His Shadow is an interesting document of its times but also far more than that. In particular, it is a creative and accomplished character-portrait, and proves to be very much a universal tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 April 2010

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Fathy Ghanem: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Fathy Ghanem (فتحي غانم) lived 1924 to 1999.

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© 2010 the complete review

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